Monday, August 28, 2006

Obesity -- Nature vs. Nurture (again)

by Tibor R. Machan

A letter by Professor of Public Health David L. Katz in The New York Times Magazine (August 27, 2006) suggests that instead of genetic or other inborn factors (nature), we should look more to environmental ones (nurture) when it comes to trying to understand obesity. As he puts the point, "While there may be insights about obesity to be gained from peering through a microscope, there is also the risk of missing the big picture. The obvious causes of epidemic obesity are all around us. Any theory the diverts our attention from them may do more harm than good."

So once again we see the age old battle between two kinds of determinism, inherited versus environmental factors. But there is another option that needs to be added. This is personal responsibility.

We are all saddled with aspects of ourselves that we had nothing to do with, and we all face elements in our environment we cannot control. But there are also choices we can make, given who and what we are and the world in which we live. The very idea that we should look more to environmental factors than to our hard wiring suggest that we have a choice. This also suggests that no one has to eat fast foods, or clear his or her plate, or go on various binges. Some of us may find it more difficult to resist temptations than others, but so what? Tall people have different challenges from short ones but both need to meet those challenges they face.

As a teacher of ethics, I find it disturbing that so many educated people opt for removing individual responsibility from the picture as they try to understand human affairs. Are they actually proposing that those who ruined Enron couldn't really help themselves? Or that those who muck up government and public affairs around the globe -- the war lords, dictators, Prime Ministers, and presidents -- just cannot help what they are doing? What about the guards who abuse prisoners, child molesters, plagiarists and all the others who perpetrate malpractice in various personal, social and public affairs?

It is not that the scientist who propose theories that explain everything that we do as something we have to do aren't conscientious folks, but I believe they miss something central, even about their own work. After all, they often criticize each other for getting things wrong and the general public for failing to heed their good advice. But all of that implies that we can make choices in our lives, that we could do better than we have, and that this is mostly up to us, not exclusively to innate propensities and environmental influences.

Which is to say, there is something extremely puzzling about people -- scientists, researchers, philosophers -- proposing that we are simply being moved about by forces over which we have no control, yet becoming upset that we do not take their teachings seriously enough. Surely, if they are right about our fundamental passivity in life, the fact that we fail to pay them heed should also simply be explained as, well, something about which no one can do anything. Que sera, sera -- what will be will be -- and moaning and groaning about it is pointless, even illogical.

But then even pointing this out is hopeless and useless. All the complaining by physicians and public health officials about the circulation of bad food, of lack of nutrition in the marketplace -- which, by the way, is a crock, since anyone who wants to eat nutritiously can do so, no problem -- can have no impact. Things will just happen as they must, so why worry?

Some kind of balance needs to be found between factors impacting our well-being over which we have no control (because of our hard wiring and because of influences from around us), and the factors that are within our control, our will power. If these latter play no role in our lives, well, complaining about those others is equally ineffectual.

Yet the very fact that people like Yale's Professor Katz can produce a letter of warning about how we deal with obesity, and that The New York Times Magazine's editors can decide to publish such a letter, and that I can decide to sit down and pen a column on it all -- these and zillions of other facts pretty much prove that we do have some control over our lives and the main task is, really, how best to exercise it instead of excusing everything by reference to things we cannot control.

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